Three more kilometers to Primavera, which means spring in spanish. But actually it is autumn, it feels like winter and I would like to be in summer, which is waiting for me on the Argentine side of the Cordilleras.
I am in the Chilean Araucania region, named after the Araucaria trees that only grow here. And they have been here for millions of years, they are virtually living beings from prehistoric times. I spent a rainy week in Temuco and I am now happy to be able to continue, although I’m unsure if the Pino Hachado pass to Argentina will be open. A sudden cold snap had turned the rain into snow in the higher elevations and the higher I push the gravel road through the dense forests around the volcano Llaima, the more I get to see of this snow, until finally the road is completely covered. But I don´t want to turn back, cycle all the way back and lose the hard-won height. I decide to spend the night in this winter landscape and want to try the next day with new strength how far I will come.
It is not far. Even in the tracks of a car my tires can´t find grip and pushing is exhausting. The car tracks stop at the border of the nature reserve China Muerte and I sink up to the knees in the snow. I realize that I can not get on here. So I turn back, always downhill. To the main road I have to go and then a large arc to the pass road, which is hopefully cleared and free of snow. But after a few kilometers I come across a Chilean family who have parked their SUV in the snow and look at me in astonishment. If the road is free, they ask me, considering if they should try it. I am not very confident in the face of the snow, but I also can´t assess what an SUV can do. They want to try it, put on snow chains and offer me to load my bike on their car. In the hope to still be able to drive this route, which is much shorter to the pass and should also be very nice, I agree.
In fact, the car makes it and after only 10 kilometers, the snowy piece is overcome and I am cycling downhill in bright sunshine. At this height, the araucaria trees grow, powerful and majestic, they stretch their needle-like branches in the sky, the bark of the trunks reminiscent of reptile skin. At this time of the year you can gather the seeds of the trees that have been a source of food for the native Mapuches living here for thousands of years. I also collect a handful of these delicious seeds and thus enrich my meals.
From winter to summer
After another cold night with temperatures below zero degrees, it goes up to the pass Pino Hachado. The road is tarmacked and cleared and for several hours I pedal slowly towards the highest point at 1800 meters. The views are fantastic. Several volcanoes are visible on the horizon, and the evergreen araucarias stand out from the autumn snow-covered landscape.
I don´t stop long at the highest point, pick up a plastic bag of oranges from the snow, left by someone out of fear of the severe Chilean immigration controls, and let my bike roll downhill. Faster than I can look the landscape changes. After only a few kilometers downhill, at the Argentinean border post, there is no sign of snow. The green Araucania are integrated into the rather warm tones of the rocks and a little further down the hilly and curved forms of the Pampa appear, sparse and with individual bushes.
I just let the bike roll. What a wonderful feeling after the hardships of the last days. I don´t have to pedal, just to keep one finger on the brake. These are the happiest moments, the reward for the effort in the form of Endorphin release in the brain. On that rush I rush down, leaving the snow-capped mountains behind me. The day draws to an end and the sky begins to glow orange and pink. What a backdrop. I cycle until darkness and pitch my camp under some trees beside the road. I’m sweating this night, it’s not getting colder than 15 degrees, and the next morning, the sun heats up my tent quickly. What a contrast to the last days. Finally I can pack away my gloves and warm underwear and cycle in t-shirts and shorts to Las Lajas, the first place on the Argentine side.
Summer in the Pampa
It’s autumn but it feels like summer. During the day, the sun burns with unmitigated power, only in the afternoon it is pleasantly cool and finally cold at night. After only three days, I’m already tired of the pampa. Not so much the barren mountain landscapes and wide views, but the ascents and descents. The Ruta 40 to the north winds up and down, always about 1000 meters high and my map tells me that it will go on to Mendoza in the same way.
I am tired. Not just my body, but especially my head. What has already become noticeable in the last few weeks, I can now feel completely. I am not so balanced anymore, little things frustrate me and sometimes even anger rises in me. When the smoke of the fire blows right into my face in the evening, or when I arrive exhausted after a long climb, only to see that it goes uphill again after a short stretch of downhill. I don´t want to cycle all these mountains, exhaust myself so much. The challenges of this route cost me more and more energy. More and more often I wish that I already would like to be in Northern Argentina. Or Bolivia. Or even Colombia. But why? It’s not about arriving somewhere, but about the way. But in the last few weeks I’ve lost a bit of the joy of cycling, or rather the meaning of it.
I’ve always set a new goal, the next big city, for example, just to identify the next geographic destination on the map and wish to be there.
Instead of accepting and enjoying the here and now, my inner resistance to the what is has grown larger and constructing a better future in my mind took more and more space. The loneliness also gives me more trouble. Not necessarily that being alone, but rather the feeling of social isolation among people. Always the similar short conversations in Spanish can not fulfill my desire for communication and exchange and in situations with multiple people I often shun because I do not understand enough. Then I become a passive observer or just wander of somewhere else in my head and start to get bored.
Insight is the first step to change. One evening I make a new plan. I will take the next pass back to Chile and cycle directly to Santiago. So I escape the many vertical meters on the Argentine side and also I know some people in Santiago. There I can rest, stay in one place for a while, think about my priorities and changes and enjoy the benefits of a big city.
With this decision I feel better and also cycling is easier for me. With the knowledge of only spending a few more days in the Pampa, I can enjoy the route more and take in the beauty of the landscape. After the village of Barancas, the previous good asphalt road turns into a dusty track. Volcanoes have formed this landscape and solidified lava flows with sharp-edged, glass-like stones criss-cross the otherwise flat valley of the river Rio Grande. There are not many signs of civilization apart from a few oil pumps and little shepherds’ huts here and there. During the day the sun is shining and at night the stars shine and the wind sweeps over my tent.
Back in the winter
At the junction to Pass Pehuenche to Chile I stockpile supplies in a small shop and start the climb. Almost imperceptibly, the road climbs through a river valley, there is hardly any traffic. It could be a simple thing, this pass, if it wasn´t for the wind. Fortunately only in gusts it blows from the front. But then so strong that I have to stop and hold my bike so as not to be blown over. At a section where the road passes through a narrow valley, the wind whirls up sand from the steep mountain slopes and throws it at me with such force that I seek shelter behind my bike from these mini sandstorms. I have only a pair of shorts on and the grains hurt when they hit my legs and leave red spots.
But even this stretch I bring behind me and arrive at the top of the pass. It goes downhill, uphill again, and more downhill. It is colder here and I have to unpack my gloves before I reach Chilean immigration.
Santiago is close, about 300 kilometers, and the closer I get the more square the world becomes. The road leads straight ahead, accompanied by kilometers of fences and endless rows of fruit trees or vines, shining red and yellow in the foggy autumn weather. More and more buildings dominate the landscape, large warehouses and industrial complexes are becoming more common.
Luckily, I can usually avoid Highway 5 and stalk Santiago on minor roads. Even the entrance to this megacity is easier than expected. After a last night in the tent on the football field of a village, I’m on my way. After three hours of cycling the city border is reached and from there onwards there is almost always a bike path along the major roads. Without problems I reach the house of my friend Gabriel, with whom I was traveling in Patagonia. It’s time for a break.